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TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen):
Hillsong is an Australian megachurch famous for its hipster vibe, multi-platinum house band, and connections to celebrities like Justin Bieber, Chris Pratt, and Kevin Durant. But behind the flashing lights and thick-rimmed glasses is an ultra-conservative church with a dark past.
Trigger warning: This episode mentions sexual assault and pedophilia.
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: Amory, we both know why we’re here...to do our jobs. But I want to start by asking you to watch this video. Because I think it encapsulates our reasons for tackling this particular episode.
Ben: Can you describe the scene a bit here? Like what are we looking at?
Amory: Okay, we’re looking at a bunch of dudes on a couch together. There are three guys. They’re all very chill. They’re kind of bro-ing around, dressed very casually. There’s someone interviewing them.
Ben: Yep. So this to me this looks a little bit like backstage at a tech conference or something. Or like backstage at Coachella. The surroundings are super modern, the lighting is super night-club-ish. Two of these guys I didn’t recognize and one I’m not too too old to recognize: Justin Bieber. The Beebs.
(Amory sings Justin Bieber)
Ben: And what is weird to me, or a little weird, is that both of these guys being interviewed, when I first saw them, I thought they were just part of Bieber’s entourage, these guys on either side of him. Like they’re wearing famous hip person outfits. Cool sneakers, tight jeans…
Amory: Oh yeah, slicked back hair.
Ben: Yep. Those stringy metal necklaces. They almost look like they’re filming a music video.
Amory: Yeah. But the less famous guys rolling around on the couch here are not part of Justin’s entourage, they’re not pop stars. They’re pastors of the Hillsong church. Carl Lentz from New York City. And Chad Veach from Los Angeles. And Justin Bieber’s kind of sandwiched in the middle, answering the interviewer’s softball questions about what he liked best about the youth part of the Hillsong conference.
Justin Bieber (in video): I just enjoy seeing people worship, praising God.
Amory: Youth-focused Christian megachurches that try to show how cool they are, are not new. But in recent years, Hillsong’s been getting a lot of attention. Partly because the church has been associated with a bunch of celebrities, from Chris Pratt to Kylie and Kendall Jenner, Bono, NBA stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Ben: And partly because of the church’s crazy-popular music, which has reached far beyond the usual Christian music charts and moved into the regular pop music mainstream. Their latest album debuted at #2 on the Billboard Top 200 and they performed live on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Good Morning America: We are excited about this one. We are back now with one of the biggest Christian bands in the world, Hillsong United. And an estimated 50 million people sing their songs in church every Sunday. I do every Sunday. They’re one of my favorite groups...
Ben: The Hillsong church has been described as a money making machine, pulling in millions upon millions of dollars from around the world. And since Amory and I are not necessarily any of Bieber’s “Beliebers,” are we, Amory? Are you a “Belieber?”
Amory: I am not, I confess.
Ben: We didn’t really know much about Hillsong until we found a Reddit post with a title that is also the title of today’s episode. Amory, say it with me...
Ben and Amory: God Is A Capitalist.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson, and you’re listening to Endless Thread.
Ben: The show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities called Reddit.
Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.
Ben: Right near the end of this bubbly bro-down Hillsong video that we’ve been watching, the interviewer does the thing that any good interviewer at a big annual tech conference does, right? They promote next year’s big conference. He says, you know, for all the people already talking about next year, for considering whether or not they want to pay their way into Hillsong’s 2018 conference…
Interviewer: Why do you think it’s important for people to take time to be at moments like this?
Amory: Hillsong’s New York pastor, Carl Lentz, says this...
Carl Lentz: I think anything that you invest in, there’s a return. So there’s a lot of people investing in different things. We all chose to let’s go invest in this. And our return has been supernatural.
Amory: Invest in the Hillsong conference, and your return on investment, will be supernatural. That’s a big promise.
Ben: It is, and it’s part of what inspired an incredibly in-depth Reddit post about the Hillsong church that went viral. The post was 4,352 words long. The post title in full was, “God is a Capitalist: An introduction to Hillsong, the Evangelical Christian Church Running Pop.”
Amory: Pop as in pop music. This post was on the pop heads subreddit, where people nerd out about pop music. And the post was written by a woman named Kiki.
Kiki: I'm an American. I'm from Austin, Texas, but I live in Edinburgh, Scotland to go to university here. I’m a third year law student.
Ben: It sort of makes sense that Kiki is studying law. Her Reddit post is heavily researched, with footnotes, links, separate sections on the church's beliefs, music, fundraising, scandals. It is carefully constructed. It’s like a legal brief written by someone who loves pop music. Someone whose reddit handle is Go West Young Kanye.
Kiki: I really like puns. And at the time I really loved Kanye West.
Amory: Kiki is very active in the Pop Heads community. Where fans go to talk about the music, and sometimes to talk about the gossip surrounding the music. And Kiki stays up on all the latest goss by following insider accounts.
Ben: Insider accounts are this kind of weird mix of actual insiders, people close to pop stars who are sources in gossip stories, and fakers, people who post a ton of gossip hoping some of it ends up being true, and then delete everything they get wrong. Pretty genius.
Amory: Evil genius.
Kiki: And often these accounts will kind of pop up out of nowhere and they'll have no followers. But then you'll see like a string of correct predictions and then you're like, “Oh shit, this is an insider.”
Amory: A few years ago, one of the accounts Kiki follows got something right.
Kiki: They were talking about how Hillsong was going to start using Selena as kind of their public advocate. And that made me go, “Wait. So who are Hillsong and what is this?”
Ben: What Kiki found was a church that in recent years seems to have been riding a tsunami of success and influence, with no small amount of help from celebrities and pop stars. And rock star pastors, that in their public profiles, look a lot like those celebrities and pop stars. Media outlets like ABC News have developed a favorite phrase...
ABC News: And the pastor is a hipster heartthrob…
Kiki: You can pull up their Instagrams. They're just constantly flexing, private jets and crazy holidays and designer clothing, which is yet another way that they sell that image of “cool church.” Like if you're pastors wearing Gucci you're like, “Oh that's really cool.”
Amory: Kiki put her palms together, raised those prayer-like hands above her head and dove in to Hillsong’s history, which actually goes back decades. The story goes like this, Hillsong’s grandfather of sorts was a man named Frank Houston. Frank grew up extremely poor in New Zealand. Eventually, he made it to Australia and started a family in the 1970s. The family reportedly lived at the poverty line. But Frank eventually became the protege of a Pentecostal minister. He built up his preaching skill set, started a church, started finding some success.
Ben: And as Sydney, Australia has become more of a globally recognized metropolis, the Houston’s family church has also grown. In the last three decades that church has built a global reach. Here’s a CBS This Morning report from 2014.
CBS This Morning: Every week in 12 countries, 75,000 faithful fill Hillsong churches. 10 million people follow Hillsong on social media, including Justin Bieber.
Amory: But, along with its history of financial growth, along with its cachet of coolness and celebrity participation, along with its promises to followers that it will help them reach prosperity and positivity, Hillsong has a darker history.
Ben: One that involves pedophilia, and a history of homophobia and religious conservatism that might surprise the people getting drawn to Hillsong. Hillsong’s history of LGBTQ intolerance and its sex scandals have been covered by a few reporters here in the U.S. So we called one up.
Brandy Zadrozny: My name's Brandy Zadrozny. I'm from New York and I'm a reporter at NBC News.
Amory: How did you first get interested in Hillsong?
Brandy: So I was personally interested in Hillsong. I grew up as a Southern Baptist, which has a very restrictive evangelical religion and it has a lot in common with Hillsong. So I wanted to write a bigger definitive piece on the history of Hillsong and their true core beliefs and how very uncool and ultraconservative their underlying beliefs are.
Ben: You've been to a Hillsong service, right?
Brandy: Yeah, yeah.
Ben: What was that like?
Brandy: It was great! It was really fun and people were really nice. You know, a bunch of leather-clad parishioners and ushers waved you in with a hearty, “Welcome to church!” And there were goldfish crackers and, you know, this is the best part of church, is the people in it. And you really do feel like it's a second family. So they have got that part down.
Ben: Do you think that the goldfish thing was a play on Jesus Fish?
Brandy: I don't know actually, but I think it was like a communion thing. Or maybe it was just a snack, I don't know. It was Sunday so a lot of people seemed, like, mildly hungover. I was at the afternoon service. There were a lot of sluggish hipsters for sure.
Ben: Kiki made this point too. Hillsong’s services don’t feel all that, well, “churchy.”
Kiki: It's basically a rock concert on Sunday and you can see Justin Bieber in the audience. So it doesn't come across as like a lot of proselytizing. And like it's not a very aggressive place. And I think that appeals to all people not just celebrities.
Ben: I mean it's interesting here in Boston the place where they have these Hillsong services is like literally, I think essentially a nightclub.
Kiki: When I was in London, I was staying at an AirBnb. I passed the church where Hillsong has their [service.] It's literally on the West End of London, which is like the Broadway of London. And I was like, "What is this? Jesus, what is going on?"
Amory: Hillsong might feel like a brand new church, stylistically and in terms of visibility. But Brandy says it’s not.
Brandy: You know, when Hillsong was first started it wasn't known as Hillsong. But this church was started in Australia by this guy named Frank Houston in the 1970s and he had a son named Brian Houston who married a woman named Bobbie Houston. And they, in the 80s, went off and started their own church and they called it Hills Christian Life Center. And then Brian Houston merged his father's church with his own. That became the Hillsong that we know today. What Brian Houston did that was really smart was that he combined, you know, typical megachurch preaching with a wildly popular music ministry. They sold, you know, millions of dollars worth of CDs and expanded expanded expanded.
Amory: It’s hard to calculate an exact dollar amount, but the latest album we mentioned, the one that debuted at #2 on the Billboard Top 200 charts, sold more than 100,000 units in its first week and was the top-selling album in the US across all genres.
Ben: Here’s Hillsong United on Good Morning America again performing the big single, “Good Grace.”
(Good Grace Plays)
Ben: Do you feel like the music part of it was almost a platform for the church itself to grow?
Brandy: Oh absolutely. I mean, religion isn't fun. I mean, nobody wants to go and read from a Bible that says fire and brimstone and terror. Especially for a religion like this that is so authoritative, it's always helpful to put a rocking beat to it. And that's how you get the kids.
Amory: You said you grew up in a Southern Baptist Church. How was your Hillsong experience different from that?
Brandy: Hillsong would have, to my church, been seen as unbiblical. They would be too liberal. And that really is only because of the music and maybe the celebrity chasing that would be seen as worldly, secular. And in my religion and in Southern Baptist we believed that pop music and all of that stuff was sort of the devil, that everything should be all about Jesus all the time.
Ben: But our Redditor Kiki says that the way Hillsong has embedded itself in pop music goes beyond even chart-topping albums.
Kiki: When artists like Selena and Justin are successful it gives them the opportunity to talk about Hillsong and kind of signal their faith and make it more their beliefs more mainstream.
Amory: Beliefs that feel incongruous with leather-jacket-donning hipster pastors.
Kiki: Hillsong has this image of being a trendy and progressive, Instagram church! But it's also hiding this huge homophobia and they've had sexual abuse issues and then they have the financial issues as well which I haven't even mentioned.
Ben: We’re going to get to all of that in a minute.
Amory: So we’ve heard the ways in which Hillsong is reimagining what church can look and sound like. But reporter Brandy Zadrozny says there’s one big, glaring similarity between a Hillsong service and the Southern Baptist services that she grew up attending.
Brandy: And that's a literal reading of the text, in that the Bible is the literal word of God. And so, you know, you can't change that. That's why there's no way that they can change their stance on something like, for instance, their anti-LGBTQ ideology, you know, that being gay is a sin. And that can never change. So that's put them in sort of a pickle because they want to be progressive and woo the millennials. But having a stance like that is not cool.
Ben: Kiki, who is one of those millennials, finds the church’s stance on the LGBTQ community particularly uncool.
Kiki: They say they're “gay accepting,” but not “gay affirming” and they say being gay is a lifestyle. And as a non-straight person, to kind of phrase it like that, like, “We'll let gay people into our church but we're not going to like make them feel that it's OK to be gay,” that was really problematic to me.
Amory: So how does Hillsong dance around this? Here’s Hillsong founder and senior pastor Brian Houston talking to ABC.
Brian Houston: I can’t unwrite the bible. But on the other hand, we’re not a church that can just make big blanket sweeping statements that dismiss people.
ABC Reporter: If a gay couple came to Hillsong, would you want them to change?
Brian Houston: The short answer is, I think all of us need to be changing.
Ben: If sidestepping a question was an olympic sport, Brian Houston would be in contention for gold.
Brandy: Hillsong’s position on LGBTQ [people] has slightly changed but only in its messaging. So they have always said that if you are gay, you are welcome in Hillsong Church. And that is true. You are welcome to sit in the pews. You cannot hold leadership roles. And they believe, and they preach openly and actively that being gay is a sin. Now, Carl has now sort of said, “Well it's just like any other sin and I don't really feel like talking about it. Jesus didn't really talk about it that much.” So you see a distancing there but it's still clear that their position is that if you are LGBTQ you're welcome to sit in the seat, but you are in effect a second class citizen. You really do have to take a seat sort of at the back of the bus in order to worship there.
Ben: This has become a problem for people who have benefitted from Hillsong’s support. People like Guy Sebastian, the 2003 winner of Australian Idol. Sebastian wasn’t a Hillsong parishioner, he was a member of another Pentecostal church that would eventually be subsumed by Hillsong as a quote, “Hillsong Family Church.”
Amory: But Sebastian got a taste of Hillsong’s growing influence via Australian Idol’s online voting. Members of the church started supporting him because he identified himself as a Christian and a virgin. In fact, there was a kind of reality TV singing contest scandal, with Hillsong being accused of flooding the voting system and unfairly skewing it in Sebastian’s favor.
Ben: After initially being excited by the support, Sebastian said that he couldn’t get behind the way the church treated people who were gay. He publicly parted ways.
Amory: Here in the US earlier this year, actor Ellen Page called for another person to do the same, for similar reasons. She was calling out actor Chris Pratt, who has attended Hillsong services. A lot of this played out on Twitter, but Page also made comments about Hillsong’s treatment of gay people on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert:
Ellen Page: I’m lucky to have the time and the privilege to say this. This needs to f---ing stop.
Ben: For the people who criticize it, Hillsong’s power as an organization is tied up with celebrities, and with using that star power to help it pull in money. As Kiki continued her law student-who’s-also-a-pop-music-fan style research, she learned that in recent years, the church, with help from celebrities, has been raising millions of dollars. In a way that has some people comparing it to Scientology. Hillsong Pastor Carl Lentz pushed back against that comparison in a 2017 interview with Vice:
Carl Lentz: It’s apples and oranges because Scientology is so out there. They’re like, you’re the guy so if we can get you indoctrinated quick enough we’re gonna make you the spokesman. We’ve never done that, Justin’s never stepped foot on stage.
Amory: That’s no longer true. And we’ll get to that. But suffice it to say, some of Hillsong’s money-making prowess comes from its connection to celebrities. Kiki’s obsession with pop music comes through again here, with a comment another celebrity made about Justin Bieber.
Kiki: Supposedly Post Malone, who’s a rapper...rapper’s a strong word for him...a hit maker. I don't know what Post Malone is. Post Malone, who’s friends with Justin Bieber or something, he said that Justin gave 10 million dollars to Hillsong. And Justin Bieber's representative denied that. But at the same time that sounded totally plausible to me.
Amory: The reason that this figure sounds plausible to Kiki is that Hillsong engages in tithing, asking parishioners to donate 10 percent of their income to the church. This would include celebrities.
Ben: The church only has about 100 thousand members, a number that sounds big but is pretty small compared with a lot of religious groups. But it has a big reach. It currently has operations in between 15 and 20 countries. And its services and materials are found in 150 languages. And, it has in recent years managed to raise close to 100 million dollars. That’s like if every single member gave the church a thousand dollars in one year.
Amory: And that figure is from the church itself, from an annual report. So that may be on the low end. Because it’s a church, Hillsong as an organization doesn’t have to abide by the same rules of taxation and financial disclosure as other businesses.
Ben: Can you tell us about Hillsong’s emphasis on prosperity and making money?
Brandy: Sure. So again, a basis for the religion is hell, is punishment for sins. But that's not a very marketable lesson. So instead what a lot of evangelical preachers do, and what Hillsong also does, is that they preach a kind of prosperity gospel. And prosperity gospel in a nutshell is that God wants you to be really rich. So if you believe in Jesus he's going to reward you here on Earth.
Ben: Gotta spend money to make money, right? But even setting aside the church’s massive proverbial collection plate. The celebrity affiliation does something else. It’s the kind of low-key, high profile marketing campaign that works in all sorts of industries. Basically you just associate someone super famous with a product, or an idea, and the superfans will glom on without you even having to ask them to outright.
Amory: You just have to project that these celebrities are having a good time with that product or idea, so you might too.
Kiki: You'll notice if you read Selena Gomez profiles about faith, she doesn't really mention Hillsong. They mention Hillsong for her.
Ben: I'm looking at Selena Gomez’s Instagram account right now. Yes. And it says light, space, zest. That's God. With him on my side, I'm fearless, all caps, afraid of no one and nothing.
Ben: Even if the celebrities aren’t saying Hillsong all over their Instagram accounts, the fans make the connection, which is, in part, because the celebrity-focused media just fills in the blanks without the church having to ask.
Amory: And this is a problem for people like Kiki who think that this cool church vibe belies Hillsong’s real belief structure and its history with sexual assault.
Brandy: So in 2014, Australia called a sort of royal commission to look into the testimony of nine boys who said that Frank Houston had abused them, had sexually molested them. And this is in the 60s and the 70s. Now when this happened allegedly, there was one boy, his name was AHA, and he testified that, you know, when he, starting out at 7 years old, Frank would stay with his family and molest him after church meetings, come into his room at night. And he said the abuse went on for several years until he hit puberty. And then Frank seemed no longer interested.
Amory: AHA came forward and identified himself last year for the first time as Brett Sengstock. Here he is on 60 Minutes Australia:
Brett Sengstock (from video): I could not speak, I couldn't scream, I couldn't push back, and I couldn't breathe. I was petrified.
Reporter: Did he say anything to you?
Brett: You know, "you're my golden boy and you're special to me," and all these sort of things, which as an adult now I look back and it makes me want to vomit.
Brandy: So he told his mother about this in the 70s and, you know, she said don't challenge the church leaders. They're like royalty. And then he said that, you know, several years later his mother changed her mind. By the late 90s those allegations had come to Brian himself. And so Brian has said before the commission that he fired, confronted his father, fired him and heard his confession. But, you know what happened was that Frank was allowed to quietly resign. He took out a pension until the day he died and he got to die without ever having publicly atoned for the sins that he allegedly made against these boys.
Ben: Brandy points out that nobody in the church brought the allegations to the authorities, including Brian Houston who is now reportedly under investigation. Part of this came out in a Royal Commission report in Australia in 2015. All of this is, unfortunately, a familiar theme to anyone who has followed the scandals in the Catholic Church, for instance.
Amory: The website Church Watch Central, has a post detailing the allegations against Frank Houston paired with audio of a sermon he supposedly gave in 2004. Some of that audio, given the larger context, is chilling. Here's a few samples:
Frank Houston: What a fantastic young fella he is. Curly hair. Good looking How old are you son? How old are you? 8. I’m 8 too. But it’s 82.
Ben: This is especially chilling since, according to some of the victims of Frank’s alleged abuse, the church has never truly answered for it or been truly held accountable by the authorities in Australia. We should point out that Frank Houston, according to his son Brian at least, is a bad apple and that it doesn’t mean that the whole Hillsong tree is rotten.
Amory: The church has been criticized by other Christians for putting moneymaking schemes over substance and by people who are generally skeptical of organized religion for, you know, building a culture around literal interpretations of the Bible, for separating people from their money, and for the past sex scandals that you were talking about. But the church has basically maintained this idea that they're growing their flock in an era when Christianity itself is struggling, you know, when church’s attendance is down. So is it possible that the organization's motivations are actually pure?
Brandy: Oh sure! I think it's totally possible that they are pure hearted and believe this. Again, these are my people. You know, I went to church with them every Sunday and Wednesday and Friday night. I don't think that they’re, and this is just my personal opinion, so I think that these are, they seem like nice folks and they are running a family business. And that business is incredibly lucrative! And I go in, it's a fun experience, there's great music, I’m getting a positive message in neon lights from a cool guy that likes me and that's what you take away. Oh and Jesus. But that’s what you take away, and so of course their numbers are increasing. That's what sounds great. But you know for anybody who's willing to do the homework, it doesn't take that long to see that underneath it, there's a problematic ideology or is ultraconservative and just, you have to be upfront about that.
Ben: The kicker in your story for The Daily Beast is good.
Brandy: Thanks! Those are my favorite parts.
Ben: You're talking about being at this service with Carl Lentz, the New York City pastor. He's talking about a group of people from the Bible, the Nicolaitans?
Brandy: That’s right, yeah.
Ben: And Lentz says God actually hated this group because this group in the Bible is trying to kind of accommodate the culture of its time instead of changing that culture.
Brandy: Yeah. So you know he points that out, and I really got chills because I find it insidious that they're seemingly representing the culture that we live in now, with Instagram and with, you know, the clothes and with the celebrities. But that was very telling to me and that was almost like, revealing themselves! They're they're not trying to accommodate the culture, they're trying to change it! And all of you are here for it.
Amory: Where do you think Hillsong is going?
Brandy: I have no idea. I mean, I know that religion will always be with us we'll always need a reason to explain why things happen or something to believe in. Just think it through the day. So I don't think that's going anywhere. And I think that they are packaging it smarter than anybody else is doing. I mean I think Hillsong has weathered every possible storm of criticism. They could have at this point and people are flocking to it. Hillsong’s like fast food for your religious needs and I don't think it's going anywhere. I think they're here to stay.
Ben: Brandy, thank you so much for talking to us about this story.
Brandy: My pleasure. Thanks for doing it.
Ben: We reached out to Hillsong, to ask about the issues reported on by Brandy and researched by Kiki. The church declined to give us an interview. But we did notice something in the news last week.
Amory: For the very first time, Justin Bieber moved from the backstage couch in 2017 to lead worship for the first time at Churchome, a "Hillsong Family" church.
(Justin Bieber singing at a worship)
Amory: After the performance, captured by TMZ, Pastor Judah Smith explained Bieber’s participation like this.
Judah Smith (in video): I wanna be part of a church where everybody gets a fair shake at using their gift to contribute to the community. And so far be it from me to stand in the way of someone who clearly has a gift to lead worship.
Amory: With the continued support of people like Justin Bieber, it seems like Brandy’s right. Hillsong doesn’t seem to be slowing down. More evidence of that came this summer when the church was visited by yet another major public figure.
Scott Morrison: Our freedoms as Christians in this country, they should be protected. Australia’s a free country and there’s nothing more fundamental in this country than the freedom of belief.
Ben: That is Scott Morrison, the new Prime Minister of Australia, speaking to 21,000 Hillsong believers in Sydney at the opening of this year’s conference. I mean, he’s not the Biebs, but Morrison does plan to introduce national legislation that further protects Hillsong and other churches from interference by the government.
Correction: In the original version of this story, we said Justin Bieber led worship at a Hillsong church. He led worship at Churchome, a "Hillsong Family" church. We regret the error.
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